I spent today working at home, watching the snow fall in London, and listening to John Martyn records by way of a modest tribute to the guitarist, who died last week at the age of 60. My wife and I accumulated about five or six between us, all on vinyl, during the 70s and 80s, from one of the first, Stormbringer, with Beverley Martin, to an early compilation, So Far So Good (which included both May You Never and Solid Air), and Grace and Danger, recorded after the breakup of his marriage to Beverley. But not Solid Air, regarded as the best of the early records.
Stormbringer was intended as a Beverley Martin solo record (John was supposed to play guitar on it, but ended up writing more of the songs). On the cover he looks young to the point of innocence, as well one might in Woodstock on 1970, but already the music is moving away from folk, with jazz and blues influenced arrangements on some tracks.
By the time we get to Grace and Danger, a decade later, with the break-up with Beverley pouring out through every crack, the sound has become uniquely personal mix of electric folk, rock, jazz and reverb. His version of The Slickers’ great reggae song Johnny Too Bad is mesmerising (as you can hear for yourself in the version embedded at the top of the post, in concert in 1981). Much of the sound comes from the interplay between Martyn’s guitar and the fretless bass of John Giblin, played with the same elan as Jaco Pastorius. Phil Collins, who plays drums on the record, can never have played on an edgier set. Island Records’ boss Chris Blackwell, a friend of both Martyns, famously delayed releasing it for close to a year because he found it too painful to listen to.
One of the unsung heroes in the evolution of John Martyn’s sound is the (acoustic) bassist Danny Thompson, (who is also one of the reasons why Pentangle’s sound was so distinctive), who played with Martyn throughout his career. A late version of Solid Air, the song written for Nick Drake after his nervous breakdown, with the pair duetting, is worth visiting YouTube for.
The notion of ‘grace and danger’ sums up for me the contradiction we expect from artists and performers – a tension which explains why so many die younger than they should. Although I was never a huge fan of John Martyn, I liked the fact that he never really moved away from the edge as he got older, even if Clapton’s mainstream cover of May You Never earned Martyn a tidy sum in royalties. And just to prove that Oasis didn’t just steal from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones: the line, ‘What’s the story, morning glory’ is on Stormbringer.